It opens with a sombre funeral, but as soon as the mourners depart Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) and his assistant Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) of Hinchley and Trumbull’s Funeral Parlour fall into a madcap routine to retrieve the luxurious coffin for reuse, dumping the body in the bare hole and shovelling earth into the grave, an unexpected contrast to the usual fare associated with American International Pictures.
While AIP had (sometimes unintentionally) dabbled in tongue-in-cheek shenanigans through the fifties with their teen-targeted drive-in movie output including It Conquered the World (1956), I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), through the sixties the period horrors of Roger Corman inspired by the work of Edgar Allen Poe which commenced with House of Usher (1960) favoured a more serious and sinister atmosphere, most often featuring Vincent Price as the sinister and disturbed protagonist.
At the time of the release of The Comedy of Terrors in January 1964, the Corman/Poe sequence had reached six entries, most recently The Haunted Palace (1963), though this was produced as a contrasting thematic follow up to the fourth, Tales of Terror (1962), both in the title (the Tales of the earlier film answered by a play on words from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors) and in that it reunited the three stars of that film, Price, Lorre and Basil Rathbone who had played Sherlock Holmes in fourteen films for both 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures from 1939 to 1946.
With a supporting role for Boris Karloff, an icon of the horror genre for his role in the classic Universal horrors including Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) for director James Whale, a script by Richard Matheson, a soundtrack by Les Baxter which demonstrates a wider range than his frequent Corman collaborations and directed by Jacques Tourneur, master of the macabre whose classics included Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Night of the Demon (1957), the pedigree of The Comedy of Terrors is indisputable.
The tale of an unscrupulous funeral director, Waldo Trumbull has discovered that making ends meet is a grave undertaking. His assistant, Gillie, is a former bank robber he has blackmailed into service (“I never confessed! They just proved it.”), while his home life is the domestic disharmony of his frustrated wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson) and her elderly father Amos Hinchley (Karloff) whom Trumbull continually threatens to poison.
With the demands of his landlord John Black (Rathbone) for the overdue rent escalating into threats accompanied by a fall in the demand for his services, Trumbull is obliged to make alternative arrangements to ensure cashflow, a nocturnal visit to the home of the aged Mr Phipps.
There Trumbull and Gillie take steps first to ensure that Mr Phipps will see no more dawns, then to be in the vicinity the next morning when the tragedy is discovered so they are conveniently placed to assist the grieving Mrs Phipps (the beautiful Beverly Wills, who tragically died in a house fire along with her grandmother and two young sons shortly after filming).
It is not only Trumbull who behaves unscrupulously; on the day of the funeral, the ceremony is delayed awaiting the arrival of the Widow Phipps and finally Trumbull dashes to her home to escort her to the service to find it empty, the lady of the house having packed up and returned to her native state. “Is there no morality left in this world?” Trumbull cries as he realises that she’s stiffed him for his fee.
Undeterred, Trumbull opts to kill two birds with one stone: his next target will be Mr Black himself, though unbeknownst to him his intended victim suffers from an affliction akin to catalepsy. Surprised by the intruders in his home, he passes out, leading Trumbull and Gillie to believe he has succumbed to a heart attack, their work done for them. What seems to have been a successful venture turns otherwise when the corpse revives in the funeral parlour…
Given the chance to play it up, the cast embrace the opportunity, though allowances were required for the two players unable to fully participate. Karloff had originally been intended to play the much more prominent, and crucially much more physical role of John Black, but was simply too frail for the undertaking and so moved to the more sedentary role of Trumbull’s tortured father-in-law. Karloff would continue to work in supporting roles right up until his death in 1969.
Similarly, Peter Lorre had suffered from ill health for many years and his deterioration was such that much of the demanding role of Felix Gillie was played by a body double; Lorre died in March 1964, barely two months after The Comedy of Terrors was released.
The film is atypical for Tourneur who is best remembered for the darker moments of his highly respected work, and it is indicated in the special features of Arrow’s newly released special edition that he considered the performances here “hammy”, but his control over the physical appearance of his picture was total, and the restoration of the print is truly stunning, a pristine presentation which magnificently showcases the carefully crafted and decorated sets.
Long typecast as the villain in all his works, Price seems to particularly enjoy playing a part which at least allowed him to demonstrate an aspect different to that of the endlessly brooding Poe adaptations. “The only thing that makes villains bearable is to make fun of them.” Certainly, Matheson’s script offers Price all the best lines: “I am afraid, madam, that he has made that final crossing to that Stygian shore,” Trumbull gently tells the Widow Phipps. “What?” she responds. “He’s dead,” Trumbull harshly enunciates.
It is Jameson who has the best scene, however; the only colour and life in the film, Amaryllis can in fact sing, despite what her sourpuss husband tells her constantly, and she comforts the mourners at the funeral of the late John F Black Esquire with a distressingly enthusiastic rendition of He is not Dead but Sleeping, unaware that he is in fact not dead but sleeping.
What begins as a treat does diminish through the running time, the increasing reliance on slapstick telegraphed by the early “tumbling dominoes” of the busts mounted on the staircase in the Phipps house which would have been more effective had it been an isolated gag rather than setting a precedent for the final act, but the film stands as a rare opportunity to see these great talents collaborate and should be enjoyed for that reason if no other.
The most significant supporting feature is My Life and Crimes, a 1987 interview with Vincent Price conducted by film historian David Del Valle (who also provides a commentary on the main feature alongside prolific B-movie director David DeCoteau) who describes his subject as “An art collector who saw art in everything, a gourmet cook who liked hot dogs.”
As would be expected, even in his mid seventies at the time of recording Price remains amiable company and is an experienced storyteller who is comfortable with his legacy, speaking of André de Toth, director of House of Wax (1953) who only had one eye, making him a curious choice for a 3-D film, though it is Robert Fuest, director of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel, whom he describes as “One of the best directors I ever worked with.”
Recalling the production entitled An Evening of Edgar Allen Poe, included on Arrow’s release of Pit and the Pendulum, Price maintains that it was the best Poe work he was involved with even though it was bemoaned by the critics accustomed to the Corman adaptations for not being “real” Poe when in fact there was not a word changed from the original stories, but while only briefly mentioned it is Theatre of Blood of which he says “I think it’s the best one [of my films].”
With a preference for often hysterical trailers over specific clips to illustrate the recollections, the fifty minute feature is disjointed, a series of short anecdotes rather than an in-depth interview of substance, and the obligatory breaks to allow the insertion of commercials in concession to the American television format from whence it originated is infuriating, but it is still a wonderful opportunity to spend time with “the master of menace” who has been largely absent from the extensive Arrow releases of his work, his personal legacy most often represented in the wealth of supplementary material by the presence of his adoring and engaging daughter Victoria Price.
David Cairns’ video essay Whispering in Distant Chambers on the life and work of Jacques Tourneur is far too short and cannot compare to the equivalent piece on the career of Brian De Palma on the recent Arrow release of Sisters, nor is it helped by the lifeless narration of Fiona Watson.
With only seventeen minutes to cover his thirty year career and barely touching upon his undisputed classic Night of the Demon it is incomprehensible why it was chosen to punctuate the piece with needless inserts of the characters of the main feature which serve only to distract and annoy.
Fortunately the essay in the accompanying booklet by Chris Fujiwara, former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, is both more comprehensive and satisfying.
Also included is a 2003 interview with the late Richard Matheson, who states that it was originally he who suggested that Tourneur should direct the film. While The Comedy of Terrors was not as successful as the Corman/Poe films it parodied, the prolific screenwriter did not feel the studio was greatly hurt: “It made money, everything they did made money. They didn’t spend enough to lose money.”
Again, at only nine minutes, the segment is far too short and focused firmly on his work with AIP (“Every role I wrote for Price was different.”) rather than the greater body of his work which includes the novels I Am Legend (1954), filmed in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth and starring Price, The Shrinking Man (1965), Stir of Echoes (1958), Hell House (1971), Bid Time Return (1975) and What Dreams May Come (1978).